Monday, 7 March 2011

'Inside Job' review:

There has been a glut of movies about the financial crisis since 2008. Oliver Stone made his sequel to 'Wall Street', whilst Michael Moore took the opportunity to make a typically polemical documentary about the more general subject of American capitalism. Later this year another star-studded and glossy Hollywood movie about bankers and the collapse of the stock market will be released in the form of 'Margin Call'. But so far the only one of these resolutely topical movies to meet with widespread critical acclaim has been the earnest and indignant documentary 'Inside Job', a film directed by Charles Ferguson and narrated by Matt Damon and winner of the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature last month.

A 'must-see' for graph fetishists, 'Inside Job' comes packed with facts and figures - each new revelation about greed and corruption designed to enrage its audience. Unlike the work of that great propagandist Michael Moore, Ferguson's film doesn't try especially hard to energise viewers into positive political action, rather it serves to confirm what 99% of its probable audience either knew or suspected going in: that the American government is controlled by Wall Street and that everyone from President Obama to the IMF to the board at AIG want to keep it that way. In other words it tells us that reform of the banking system is impossible as things stand - even when a reform candidate with a strong mandate takes office at a time when the system's failures are at their most apparent. It's a numbing feeling watching it for that very reason. Damon's sober narration leaves us with a half-hearted rallying cry just before the credits pop up, inciting us to fight for change, but you will in all likelihood have lost hope in civilisation long beforehand in the face of overwhelming evidence of deep-rooted systemic corruption.

Perhaps I'm missing the point, but I have a slight problem with documentaries like 'Inside Job' and it isn't a case of apathy or world-weary nihilism on my part at all. I have the same problem with (or indifference towards) the work of Richard Dawkins, in that I just can't see the point in preaching to the converted in this way. One thing the film makes abundantly clear is that the financial institutions involved in causing the crisis, and with it mass unemployment and bankruptcy around the world, have committed large-scale criminal acts - either consciously (which seems probable) or as a result of gross negligence. And yet we also see time and time again through all the interviews (with economists, academics, government officials etc) that the perpetrators are not only still running the world, with no realistic end to that situation in sight, but that they are also wholly unrepentant (presumably because many of the individuals involved became richer as a result of the crisis). Change can only be effected by those at the top and those at the top don't have it in their best interests to effect change.

This dispiriting truth, which I'm assuming a healthy percentage of the audience already knew before buying their ticket, makes it difficult to take anything away from 'Inside Job' other than rage or depression, either that or possibly a sense of overbearing smugness. You can criticise Michael Moore for being brash and manipulative, but at least he has something to say - his films are essays or editorial columns which have a political point to drive home. They want to inspire the audience into action, whether that involves forming some sort of worker's cooperative or voting a certain way in the next election. He also highlights things members of his audience might not know about, such as the history of American socialism. In short: whether you like them or not, Moore's films have a reason to exist. I can see the function they have and I can understand why they are interesting. 'Inside Job' is, by contrast, two hours of someone saying "the banking system corrupt and wreckless." Yes. I agree. What else have you got?

'Capitalism: A Love Story' also went an interesting route in talking about the financial crisis in that Moore used it as a way to discuss the fundamental problems with the ideology behind the system rather than simply providing an annotated guide to the crisis itself. To me that is where the interesting discussion is at and only when we question fundamental things about the way we organise out society/economy can we hope to break this cycle.

Though if a detailed account of the crisis with interviews and graphs is what you're after then there is no better film than 'Inside Job'. It is detailed and well researched, and the interviews are very well done, especially as Ferguson has no difficulty telling truth to power and does so confidently whilst always remaining polite. Unlike Moore you could accuse him of being hectoring of self-important. The best interviews see the likes of economist Glenn Hubbard squirm uncomfortably, struggling to answer questions so obviously aware of their guilt. These are the best scenes but also the saddest, as we see powerful, influential men - who are blatantly aware of their guilt - lying to us brazenly. The section that highlights the conflict of interests within the academic profession is especially good. It is certainly a smartly made movie and unquestionably on the side of right.

If there is such a thing as objectivity then I would have to say that 'Inside Job' is a very handsome film, clearly made by people passionately engaged with the subject at hand and backed up by lots of solid evidence. It must also be said that the pre-credits sequence about the impact of deregulation and privatisation in Iceland is fascinating. I'm not telling you to pass on watching it, not at all. I'm simply saying that you will likely leave the film with the same opinion of financial institutions as you had going in (whatever that may be) - and I personally don't see the point in that. Maybe people crave reassurance that they are right more than they want to be challenged or provoked? I couldn't say. I just know that Michael Moore can move me and inspire me whilst this left me feeling cold and unwilling to engage with an unfair world.

'Inside Job' is out on a limited release in the UK and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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